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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Reverse Culture Shock
Dean H. Ruetzler in Japan

Going from one culture to another, is never an easy task. Of course, in one way or another, culture shock will find you in another land. In Finland, when I first lived overseas, I hardly ventured beyond my immediate surroundings on my own accord for the first two months. Nearly seven years later, most of which were spent overseas, it seems laughably timid, especially in a country that has one of the best English standards in the world (for a non native-English speaking country, of course,.. though I do find Scottish English, and certain Australian individuals quite difficult to decipher...Krikey, mate!!).
I am by nature an extremely shy person, but circumstances, especially living overseas, have taught me to attempt to circumvent that, and I try very hard to go out and experience the culture of the countries I have been to. Or at the very least, to have some kind of experience, as opposed to being stagnant. Japan, a prosperous, rich, well-developed country, quite similar to my home country of the United States in many ways, nonetheless does differ greatly in some other aspects. I lived in Japan for three years previously, and for the time being will continue to work, study the language, and "experience" life in Japan from "Anma" to "Zaibatsu". Needless to say, I did encounter some culture shock before, and most likely, I will again..

I have also encountered some reverse culture shock in the times I have returned from being overseas. Coming back the first time, in 1997, was real rough. The next time, 1999 was easier because it was from having been in three countries in three years, and truthfully, I had no clue where I was (some people have accused me of having this as my natural state of functioning, only SEEMS that way folks!). The next time in 2000, it was not that bad, and I simply thought the cure was a couple bowls of good chili, a shopping trip or two to K-Mart, and a few hours in front of a cable-equipped TV, clicking rapidly from channel to channel, letting Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, New England Sports Network (go Red Sox go!), ESPN, MTV, and racy Canadian late night TV, lead me in a quest of reacquiring my culture (or lack thereof, as many Non-Americans are quick to insist, a common "American joke" in Europe is; "What is the difference between Yogurt and The United States?"..."If you leave yogurt alone for 227 years it WILL develop a culture!").

I recently have spent eight months back in the United States, and have had to confront culture shock, despite my efforts to avoid it. I did try, as I took Japanese lessons, actually undertook a job that had me speaking polite Japanese half the time, and even had to acclimate my circadian rhythm to "Tokyo time" for the sake of that job. I even was able to discover Wasabi Shuumai at the sushi bar of a local grocery (Yes, even in the "dooinaka" of America, you can find half-decent sushi and the like). Despite all of that, I still did encounter culture shock in several different ways, on my path to a reasonable readjustment to my home country.

DIET: Japan is an overweight male`s paradise. If you are overweight you are in a country where an obese, sweaty, 900-pound sumoo wrestler with mammary glands that would make Pamela Sue Anderson jealous is the ultimate male sex symbol. As many find when they come to Japan, they can eat voraciously, and still lose lots of weight. I easily lost 15 pounds within four months of entering the country, and stayed at the lowest weight of my adult life for the next two and a half years. This was done not by eating less, but eating nearly all I wanted of about four things: rice, vegetables, fish, and the occasional pork, beef or chicken meal. Silly me, I thought I could have used the same diet pattern upon my return to the United States. Somehow eating nothing but pizza, beef jerky, Chicken McNuggets, and chocolate does not produce the same results. Oh well, at least all I need to do is say I am a sumoo in training, and my little black book will need a separate volume for each region of the country.

It is said that the Japanese (and other Asians) are so ingrained that the bow is an important social function they will even bow while speaking on the telephone. I have been privy to witness this phenomenon on more than one occasion. Well, in three years I certainly did not pick up all the particulars and etiquette of this complicated ritual (a foreigner is better off trying to memorize the 100,000 kanji (characters) that are most commonly used in the language, it is much easier), but did learn to follow the lead of whoever bowed at me, and give an "eshaku" (or "short" bow, very useful if you have a herniated lumbar disc) in acknowledgement of another. I also would drop to my knees and do the "dogeza" (translated in my battery-powered dictionary as "prostrate oneself") if I was fairly sure protocol would allow comic relief. I had no idea how ingrained this was in my system...until I started taking phone calls from Japanese customers, in the middle of New Hampshire, roughly 10,000 miles from Japan. It must have been an amusing site. A bearded "imo yaroo" ("hick" concluding each and every obsequious venture into polite customer-oriented Japanese to take orders for kids pajamas, cotton sheets, lingere, bras and the like, with a sizeable bow to a computer display. The four Japanese citizens on staff certainly did not do that....Jeezum Crow, they probably were enjoying NOT having to bow in those situations.

(This is more about avoiding culture shock than having it). Upon my return to Iwate Prefecture my friends and new employers remarked on how much my Japanese had improved. Of course many also remarked how I had gotten thinner too...but in this case the "homekotoba" ("words of flattery") may actually have been deserved, at least a little bit. Of course I studied nearly every day, and had a job where Japanese was NECESSARY, which certainly contributed to a jump in capability level. Still the concept is quite strange. I leave Japan after three years of living there, go back to the United States, In one of its more rural regions, with the lowest population density of Asians, or Asian-Americans (or any other minority, for that matter) in the United States, and come back with my Japanese a level BETTER? It seems absurd, Deshoo? Only in America, Eh?

In my home city of Burlington, Vermont we have some of the strongest pedestrian safety rules in the States, if not the world. They can be summed up as "Pedestrians are King, if something happens to one, in most cases the drivers are toast ". A shock upon returning, but a very pleasant one, as riding a bike or walking near traffic in Japan qualifies as potential material for the popular "Fear Factor" television show (As do many gustatory adventures in Japan). My handy pocket translator defines "Foreigner pedestrian or biker" as "moving target". In all fairness, in most cases, this applies to Japanese citizens too. Three years of getting cursed at by Japanese drivers for legally using crosswalks at the appropriate time (and my Japanese friends wonder "Where did I learn THOSE words?" On the streets..literally, ON the STREETS). Three years of drivers never looking when they leave a smaller thoroughfare, cross a sidewalk and turn on to a larger roadway. Three years of older Japanese women ("Obaaachan") riding adult tricycles, pushing shopping carts, and baby buggys, and not moving away from, avoiding in any form, or giving up the right of way to ANYTHING the smaller side of an armored vehicle. Thinking one on a sidewalk will give way to you invites a fracture of your tibia, a sub-luxation of your knee joint, or even spontaneous amputation.
Once a cab driver backed into me near Morioka station while using a crosswalk on a green light. Heck Fire, one balmy June evening my first year in Japan, making my way back to the suburbs to my apartment, I had to crash my bike into the grass on the roadside to avoid a driver, who was using the car-width bike path/sidewalk INSTEAD OF THE ROAD! Who needs skydiving, bunji-jumping, extreme skiing, jumping buses on a motorcycle, or hunting Kodiak bears with a bow and arrow? I have "Japanese Traffic" to get my death-defying thrills from!
A good friend of mine who has studied Japanese for most of the last eight or nine years and is quite fluent relates this; "You are back home, in a cafe, on a park bench or the like, and an attractive woman with Asian features sits near you, of course you want to show off your Japanese you speak to her in Japanese, and she returns a look of total incredulity!" Or worse yet her friends come by and they start speaking Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, et al. and you realize the last ten minutes of your life were a total waste of time. Or worst case scenario, her ketai...I mean cellular phone rings and she speaks very loudly in the local dialect
It can be very unnerving when you go to a supermarket for the first time while back.....and the background music actually changes songs every three or four minutes....or changes songs.....period.
Lets say you do actually find some Japanese native speakers, say on a city bus, in a bookstore, or a mall to speak with. Most will be pleasantly surprised if you can carry on a decent conversation in Japanese....and a few will be TOTALLY FREAKED OUT! Hick local has spoken in the indecipherable secret code of Nippon, and worse yet, he may have understood what you were saying previously.... Of course, how would I feel if one of the locals in my current digs looked up from the rice paddy they were working in and started conversing with me in workable English?
In my Intermediate-level Japanese course back home Yukari-Sensei brought in Miki, a local Japanese graduate student from Tokyo to our class one evening. The exercise was to ask her one question in Japanese and then translate the answer. When it came time for my question, I thought about the many times I had been in a similar situation in an Eikawa class in Japan. I asked what I thought was an appropriate question, based on my extensive experience in Japan. I asked if she knew how to use a fork. At least, I THOUGHT it was appropriate! So one of my fellow class members questions my "international understanding". Miki then gives me a lecture in Japanese about how of course she can use a fork, and then repeats it in English better than mine. Yukari-Sensei, however has a wonderful capacity to understand queries of the sardonic variety, she was laughing quite heartily.

My Japanese experience was by and large limited to one region of the country, and my new experience is oh, about 20 kilometers from the last one. A deep cultural experience for sure, but not a lot of variety. One should not make generalizations about an entire country based on the experience of one region, as the discussions on Japan with my friends, teachers, and co-workers from places such as Tokyo, Niigata, Gunma, Shiga, Kantoo, and Kansai helped set me straight on that level of cultural understanding. Why it is like basing all your assumptions about Canada based on Manitoba, Sherbrooke, or Clarenceville. Or doing the same for Germany based on Baden-Wuurtenburg, the "Schwebish" District. Or Russia based on Karelia or the Kamchatka Peninsula. Or Finland based on Ylivieska, Raahe, or Merijarvi. Why, it is just like deciding everything in Austrailia is like Tasmania. It is dangerous to think that Essex is representative of all of British culture (Though it is fun to pretend it is in the company of Brits!). Is Wellington truly a place you can use as a mirror of New Zealand? Those who think Voralberg or Graz are the same as the rest of Austria are sadly mistaken. How can one say they know Sweden based on Tarneby or Sunsdvall? Much the same goes for Norway and...well if you can name a place in Norway other than Lillehammer or Oslo..don`t do it! Denmark, DONT you DARE judge it based on Horsholm. Most Lichtenstieners wince if you use Vaduz as its lone representative to the rest of the world. Banska Bystrcia or Plesjy are wonderful places to visit, but hardly what a Slovak wants you to base "cultural understanding" on. Why this sort of thinking, is like basing all your impressions of America on.....(drum roll please....) Vermont! (or Utah!)
© Dean H. Ruetzler
Nishine, Iwate Prefecture, JAPAN and Warren/South Burlington, Vermont, USA

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Dean H. Ruetzler

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